Hillary Clinton has every right to be infuriated by the performance of the press during the 2016 election. In her new book “What Happened,” Clinton mainly indicts television news for abandoning coverage of any actual public policy issues in favor of its berserk obsession with her use of a private email server. Subsidiary malefactors include Matt Lauer, for asking her about almost nothing else at NBC’s September 2016 Commander-in-Chief Forum on national security, and the New York Times, for its spasmodic freakout when FBI Director James Comey declared he was re-opening the bureau’s investigation into her emails just before the election.
But here’s where Clinton and I part ways:
In an interview Tuesday, she said, “I don’t think the press did their job in this election, with very few exceptions.” She believes the problem is something new, and the fault of bad individuals.
Clinton’s problem is obvious: At 69 years old and after a lifetime in politics, she somehow still doesn’t understand what the corporate media’s job is.
Generally speaking, when people fail to do their jobs in a spectacular way, they get fired. When they do their jobs, they’re not.
Who exactly in the corporate media has been fired for failing to provide the United States with in-depth, sober, fair-minded coverage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the minutia of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act?
Which suggests that the media did do its job. Moreover, I think the media performed incredibly well.
The New York Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, et al., are gigantic corporations — in most cases owned by even larger ones. And the job of giant corporations is not to inform American citizens about reality. It’s not to play a hallowed role in the history of a self-governing republic. It’s to make as much profit as possible. That in turn means the corporate media will never, ever be “liberal” in any genuine sense and will be hostile to all politicians who feint in that direction.
From that perspective, the media’s performance in 2016 was a shining, glorious success. As Les Moonves effused just as the primaries were starting, Donald Trump’s campaign was “good for us economically. … Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” The entire Hieronymus Bosch-like nightmare, said Moonves, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” CNN made $1 billion in profits during the election year, far more than ever before.
With that in mind, read this passage from Clinton’s book about her experience with Lauer, who asked her five questions in a row about her private email server:
Finally, after learning absolutely nothing new or interesting, Lauer turned to a question from one of the veterans NBC had picked to be in the audience. He was a self-described Republican, a former Navy lieutenant who had served in the first Gulf War, and he promptly repeated the right-wing talking point about how my email use would have landed anyone else in prison. Then he asked how could he trust me as President “when you clearly corrupted our national security?”
NBC knew exactly what it was doing here. The network was treating this like an episode of The Apprentice, in which Trump stars and ratings soar. Lauer had turned what should have been a serious discussion into a pointless ambush.
That’s Clinton’s problem right there. Of course NBC “knew exactly what it was doing.” What Lauer and his co-workers were doing was their job: to make as much money as humanly possible for NBC.
By contrast, fostering “serious discussion” is not part of their job. Serious discussion about politics is time-consuming and expensive. Serious discussion makes advertisers, executives, and shareholders angry. It’s unprofitable.
Getting angry at the corporate media for not telling America the truth is like getting angry at chainsaws for doing a terrible job brushing your teeth. Sure, the chainsaw company may run lots of promotional ads about how its latest model, the Scytherate 9000, is essential for your dental health. And maybe you have the right to get mad at the manufacturer the first time you jam it in your mouth and turn it on. But if you keep doing it, at a certain point that’s on you. You should be able to figure out that getting your teeth minty fresh is in fact not what chainsaws are designed to do.
Clinton’s inability to grasp this fundamental point is the central mystery of her condemnation of the media. No American politician has been personally brutalized for longer by the press’s relentless garbage tornado. Yet she somehow was surprised when it happened again in 2016 and came through that painful experience still believing the corporate media’s propaganda about itself.
For instance, Clinton makes a big deal out of a study that found the nightly news on CBS, NBC, and ABC devoted just 32 minutes to real issues in the presidential race during the first 10 months of 2016. By contrast, she points out, “In 2008, the major networks’ nightly newscasts spent a total of 220 minutes on policy. In 2012, it was 114 minutes.”
Okay, 220 minutes on policy is better than 32 minutes. But 220 minutes of policy coverage is still just seven minutes per network per month. That’s not a golden era to look back upon with great nostalgia. Moreover, Clinton doesn’t mention election years like 1996, when the networks devoted just 96 minutes to issues.
Likewise, Clinton claims that the media’s disinclination to pin Trump down on any of his endless lies in real time, particularly during their debates, “was not just a slight shift; this was a ground-shaking shift.” But no one who lived through Ronald Reagan’s constant excursions to a fantasy world, and the media acquiescence to it, could believe that Trump is qualitatively new. Indeed, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Press Secretary Peter Teeley told the New York Times in 1984 that campaign operatives knew they could get away with lying during debates. “You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” Teeley explained, and if the media later documents that what the candidate said was false, “So what? … Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”
Then there’s Clinton’s peculiar affection for the New York Times. Yes, she says, it has often viewed her “with hostility and skepticism,” but “I’ve read the Times for more than 40 years and still look forward to it every day. I appreciate much of the paper’s terrific non-Clinton reporting.” She doesn’t mention the paper’s terrific assistance to the George W. Bush administration’s campaign of deceit about Iraq, which might suggest the paper has some baked-in flaws.
Since Clinton has no structural critique of the press, why does she believe she was so badly mauled in 2016? The only explanation she presents is that the rules are different for her personally:
I don’t think I’m held to the same standard as anybody else. I believed that if I were to say … “Let’s do single-payer tomorrow” … unlike either my primary opponent or my general election opponent, I would’ve been hammered all the time. “OK, how are you going to do that? How are you going to pay for it? Where’s the money going to come from?”
If Clinton’s right, no one would be asking those questions this week about Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill. But if she’s wrong, if the corporate media is fundamentally hostile not to her specifically but to progressive policies in general, reporters will in fact demand answers on this from Sanders repeatedly. All you need to do is open your computer browser to see it’s going to be the latter.
In the end, Clinton’s ideas about the media demonstrate that, more than anything, she badly needed to watch the Noam Chomsky documentary “Manufacturing Consent” or get a subscription to the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting newsletter. Then she could have approached her campaign with fewer illusions and with a much greater chance of winning.
Instead, she’s left with the bitter observation that the press “want me to stop talking. If it’s all my fault, then the media doesn’t need to do any soul searching.” But that’s the whole point: The corporate media doesn’t have a soul. It just has a balance sheet.